Ellwood is a teenage working-class African-American boy being brought up by his grandmother in Florida in the early 1960s, when, despite civil rights activism, racial segregation is still strictly enforced. Nevertheless, Ellwood has decided to do everything ‘right’; he studies hard at school, is known as a reliable worker in his hotel job, and has been recommended for a special scheme allowing disadvantaged young people to take college-level classes at local black college, Melvin Griggs. He listens over and over again to a recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches that his grandmother bought him, idealising non-violent protest and taking part in a civil rights march himself. Nevertheless, none of this protects Ellwood when he is wrongly accused of joyriding and sentenced to Nickel, a reformatory school for boys that is supposed to create upstanding citizens rather than subject its inhabitants to punitive imprisonment. As Ellwood reflects ironically when he first arrives at the place: ‘The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green… The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking property Ellwood had ever seen… In a sad joke, it intersected with his visions of Melvin Griggs Technical, minus a few statues and columns.’
Nickel might look good from the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside: dormitories go unpainted, bleachers splinter, canteen food is stolen by the guards and sold to local businesses, boys are informally loaned out to labour for those who can do the staff a favour, and above all, there’s the ‘White House’, where an industrial fan hides the sounds of night-time beatings. Even worse than that, however, is being ‘taken out back’, for after that boys tend to disappear. Whitehead conveys the horror of their fates through descriptions of archaeological excavations of their bodies in the present day, which clearly and chillingly spells out what happened to them, but avoids sensationalising their pain: ‘When the state of Florida dug [one boy] up fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested by the broken bones.’
The first two-thirds or so of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, follow a pretty straightforward narrative that is familiar from prison or reform school memoirs and fictions; Whitehead’s take is lifted by his incredibly moving writing. A couple of incidents are horrifyingly memorable, not necessarily because of their violence but also for their poignancy, such as a notable boxing match between the champions of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ sides of the school, and the boys’ pride when they decorate the place for the annual Christmas Fair. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if there was more to this story; the two of Whitehead’s previous novels that I’ve read, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, were both dense and intelligent, making the reader work hard in a good way, whereas this seemed to be relying on simpler emotional beats. But The Nickel Boys, too, becomes more complex later on, as Whitehead starts flashing between life after the institution and life still within it. The ending of the novel, in particular, had me in tears, as Whitehead draws together the past and present with no hope of closure in the future.
Like a number of recent novels by African-American writers (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered), Whitehead effectively shows how slavery is at the core of America’s modern history, and shapes black lives and deaths to this day. The only thing that stopped this being a five-star novel for me was his handling of his characters. Spoilers follow [highlight to read.] We are led to believe that Ellwood is narrating his time in Nickel as well as his later life in New York, but at the end of the novel, it’s revealed that it’s his friend Turner who survived the place; Ellwood was shot dead trying to escape after a naive attempt to whistleblow on the goings-on in Nickel. The ‘Ellwood’ we meet in later life is in fact Turner, who has taken on his friend’s name to honour him. I’m not sure why this twist was necessary. Indeed, it seemed to pit Ellwood and Turner too clearly against each other as archetypes, the ‘good’ black martyr who is too idealistic for this world, and the canny black survivor who understands the reality of institutional racism. As with the early chapters of the novel, Whitehead seems to sacrifice nuance for emotion. Spoilers end. However, this is a haunting novel, and Whitehead’s evocation of what was a real-life place will be difficult to forget.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 1st August.